10 Best Films of All Time: Joseph Wade

8. Parasite (2019)

10 Best Parasite Moments

Bong Joon-ho’s Korean Language Oscars Best Picture and Cannes Palme d’Or winner Parasite is the only film I have ever seen that I knew was an instant classic before I even left the cinema.

Infused with the influences of Martin Scorsese, Ken Loach, and most obviously Alfred Hitchcock, Bong Joon-ho’s intentionally very specific South Korean movie captured the feelings of the entire world following decades of financial crashes, the rise of the billionaire class, and increasing wealth disparity. The tale, of a semi-basement-dwelling family of adults conning a rich family into employing them, at first appears light-hearted and is undoubtedly funny, but when a huge twist occurs halfway through the movie, the entire film turns on its head. What was once an enjoyable if morally questionable time at the movies, akin to some of the classic Hollywood films of decades gone by, suddenly becomes a politically-pointed thriller with horror elements, and every seemingly innocuous nod towards class and wealth that the film set up in the first half grows into a key theme that underpins this masterpiece of tone. 

There was always the possibility of a Hitchcock movie making this list. He is widely regarded as one of the very best for a reason – and I have always admired his ability to maintain tension throughout the seemingly innocuous; he’s the master of suspense because he (perhaps better than anyone) understands tone – and his films often top lists such as this because of their quality and influence. My favourite is Rear Window (1954). But I’m a child of the 90s, an adult of the 21st century, and Parasite is the Hitchcock movie of this century. It is wildly enjoyable where it needs to be, nail-bitingly tense in all the right ways, and so thematically and textually rich that you can rewatch it countless times and still find more to enjoy, more to unravel. It’s masterful, as all of Hitchcock’s work was, but more contemporarily relevant, more biting in its political remarks, more my kind of movie. 

The sequence that always stands out is the one when the rainstorm comes and we witness the central Kim family run from the home of the rich Park family all the way to their semi-basement. As we witness them literally running downhill and down staircases, we are forced to understand the differences between their lives and those of the rich. When they arrive back to a home flooded with the wastewater of the city – the kind of water that drains from the home of the Park family, whose son is safe and sound in a tent in the back garden – and we witness an entire lifetime erased by the waste of their employers, it is impossible not to feel the righteous anger that the Kim family patriarch Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) feels in the family’s temporary shelter moments later. 

It’s a movie that is filled with iconic sequences, and built upon a formula that can unravel many of today’s complex wealth and class issues, yet it is also all of the elements that one classically finds appealing: strokes of directing genius, great acting, a score that somehow makes everything even better. Bong Joon-ho’s use of blocking is a particular highlight, the director designing the Park house for this film and making use out of it by placing clues in the centre of frame and creating unnatural barriers between characters; the kinds of barriers that we don’t necessarily pay attention to but subconsciously process each and every time they’re broken. What’s so amazing for a film this brilliantly constructed and organised is how much of it rests on the terrific performances of its cast. Song Kang-ho is sensational, as is always the case in his collaborations with Director Bong, but the wider cast each bring tremendous moments of performance that highlight the quality of the work elsewhere, Lee Jung-eon in particular offering a vastly underrated transformation as the Park family’s original personal assistant. 

Few films have ever made me feel actively angry at the injustice they present. The kind of righteous anger that makes your blood boil, the hair on the back of your neck stand on end (Taylor Sheridan’s 2017 crime thriller Wind River immediately springs to mind). Parasite may be the only one that has ever done so after lulling me into smiling and laughing through at least half of the movie. It features so many of the techniques mastered by directors of different eras, and borrows from so many great films that came before it, combining those exceptional qualities with a parable relevant to our current time, that speaks to the generations who’ve suffered at the hands of the ultra rich and the ways they’ve caged us into our place through work and debt and aspiration. In the three (and change) years since I first saw Parasite, every essay, piece of analysis, revisit and rewatch has only confirmed to me that it is exactly what I thought it was when I first saw it: an instant classic.

Recommended for you: Where to Start with Bong Joon-ho

7. The Tree of Life (2011)

I was in my early twenties when I first set eyes on a Terrence Malick movie. I had seen so many classic films, including many of the ones listed here, that I felt I had a stronger than usual grasp on what cinema could be. I was wrong. Terrence Malick makes movies like nobody else, and seeing one for the first time opened a portal to a whole new dimension of filmmaking. His films are ethereal – and that isn’t an overstatement, either; they’re transcendental masterpieces unlike anything you’ll find anywhere else. For this reason, a Malick movie had to make this list. It could have been his 1998 World War II movie The Thin Red Line, a film that I would consider among the greatest films of one of the most influential genres in cinema history, the war movie, but upon further contemplation I couldn’t not pick Malick’s 2011 Palme d’Or-winning masterpiece, The Tree of Life. It may not be the most accessible of his decades-long oeuvre, but it best aligns with my own beliefs regarding cinema being an art form because it is the most unique and the most authored of all of his features. The most Malick. And it is potentially the best-ever example of philosophical screen poetry.

I wrote my 27,000 word postgraduate dissertation on Malick’s cinematic poetry (a piece almost as long as this one), analysing his six feature releases between Badlands in 1973 and To the Wonder in 2012. Using theory posited by Pier Paolo Pasolini, I analysed and evaluated Malick’s work as a uniquely North American brand of filmmaking; his narratives working to analyse and deconstruct American myths, his films focused on catholic ideology and theology, each presented through a lens that acts as if an all-seeing figure passing through time and space to witness our existence. I wrote of how Malick’s background as a philosophy major informed every step he took in his filmmaking career, including his fifteen-plus year sabbatical in which he disappeared (rumours suggest he became a barber in Paris). He doesn’t speak publicly, and doesn’t discuss his films at all – by all accounts he’s a recluse, and as such all-the-more a cult of personality – so his films have long been ripe for analysis, for finding meaning in. Each rich in terms of text and context, and all looking so exclusively like a Malick movie that they are instantly distinguishable from the work of all other filmmakers, I discovered that Terrence Malick is perhaps the only auteur (by official definition) of the contemporary period of US filmmaking. 

For a filmmaker so unique, and one who’s made some of the great films of the 70s, 90s, 2000s, and 2010s, his reclusive nature (apparently he’d call actors from pay phones to avoid giving away his location) means that glimpses at the director’s intent have only ever been fleeting at best, his work speaking for itself with little context offered by Malick (or even his collaborators) over his decades in the film industry. The Tree of Life is as close as we’ve ever been to any kind of explanation, the narrative of a man looking back on his life in an attempt to mend a broken relationship with his father being by all accounts semi-autobiographical. We know this because of the film’s 1950s Texas setting and because Malick is said to have lost a brother at a young age, something that happens to the protagonist of The Tree of Life in the prolonged sequences that portray his childhood. In this existential film, Malick appears vulnerable, contemplative, but still typically philosophical. He attempts to deconstruct his present, his past, and the entire history of the universe, in one magical art piece that would be more fitting in a museum than it would be on your television at home. 

Malick is such a unique filmmaker that his offerings have remained similar across work with various cinematographers, the frame floating through moments to only briefly capture the words and actions of the actors. In The Tree of Life, Malick partnered with Emmanuel Lubezki for the second time, the Mexican director of photography’s iconic use of digital camera techniques allowing The Tree of Life to feature barely a frame of anchored down camera work. Lubezki’s expertise with steadicam created the experience of traversing through memories and thoughts side-by-side, like witnessing a dream come to life. With old-school visual effects techniques anchoring the more expansive scenes that present the formation of the universe in some of the most spectacular shots in all of contemporary cinema (created largely by mixing different oils), and the edit ensuring that most of the film’s meaning is apparent in the language of the image as opposed to what is written in the script, The Tree of Life is one of those uncommon purely cinematic experiences.

By this stage in his career, Malick was beyond the confines of mainstream studio filmmaking. While his Pocahontas fable The New World was certainly a step away from the controlling systems he had so often been unhappy with across his 1970s releases Badlands and Days of Heaven, The Tree of Life was confirmation that he was embracing the arthouse, that he was looking to forge an entirely new form of film art. His later films would be divisive for how far they leaned away from typical ideas of western cinema, but The Tree of Life was the perfect moment where his filmmaking talents and overall intelligence were at their peak on the screen, and to witness such a once-in-a-lifetime filmmaker reach their peak is a very special thing indeed.

For years, I would listen to “Funeral Canticle” by John Tavener, a song selected for use in The Tree of Life, as a self-soothing method. It wasn’t so much the music – though it is remarkable in its own right – but the way the music would transfer me to that same place that The Tree of Life did, how it would ease the noise of everyday stresses and make larger issues seem more manageable. In listening to that song, I too would traverse my past, think of my place in the universe, contemplate my beliefs. Terrence Malick and I don’t have the same religious beliefs, we don’t have the same backgrounds, but the universality he finds in his existential screen philosophy remains profound to me even now. There has never been a filmmaker like him, and there may never be again, The Tree of Life his most important contribution.

Recommended for you: Where to Start with Terrence Malick

6. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

Mel Stuart’s iconic adaptation of Roald Dahl’s famous novel is the film that has had the most profound impact on me. From my first conscious thought on cinema to this very day, my fondness has only grown. What was once childhood fantasy come to life is now the most idealistic representation of the Hollywood dream factory in my mind. 

To truly grasp the monumental nature of this film, especially to a self-professed cinephile with a lifetime of dedication to studying the form, it is important to consider the context of Willy Wonka’s release. The film came after the boom of television, in the midst of an identity crisis in Hollywood. It was a period of great unrest rivalled only by the advent of sound in cinema or the rise of streaming in our current moment. Television had long put pay to a number of the United States’ biggest and most influential studios, and audiences had tired of the typical Hollywood productions of the previous era. A new generation of filmmakers were about to take hold of the form and mould it in their image. The likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Terrence Malick rose to prominence – the first group of filmmakers to ever study the form at university. They infused their work with the influence of filmmakers less often seen on American screens; the likes of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, French New Wave pioneer Jean-Luc Godard, and even silent era pioneer Sergei Eisenstein. But if Hollywood was to implode entirely, it wouldn’t go without a fight. And to convince the world of its magic, its authenticity as a dream factory, grandiose idea-first musicals like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory were greenlit. Each of them featured moments directly reminding the viewer of the significance of the theatrical experience, and one of these moments in Willy Wonka is my favourite scene in film history.

As the children and their guardians arrive at Willy Wonka’s famed chocolate factory and the charismatic star walks them into his secretive palace, the guests are faced with a corridor that gets smaller as they go. The characters hunch over, questioning the validity of Wonka’s tiny door and their ability to fit through it. They each look at the tiny little box and walk through into a world of magic that exists beyond. “Come with me and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination” are the first words of the now famous song, and what a world of imagination it is. The guests are blown away by what exists on the other side, and so are we. Stuart and studio Warner Bros can almost be heard crying out, “this is what we are”, and to this day I believe it – those characters entering that soundstage are just like each of us entering the cinema: all doubts as to the validity or enjoyability of the experience erased by pure movie magic, all questions silenced, eyes wide at this arena of pure imagination. A chocolate river, balloons filled with candy, a flower you can drink out of and even eat – this is peak dream factory stuff, the exact image of being rich that you might imagine as a child, the kind of idea that only Hollywood cinema can bring to life. It’s a perfect moment.

Willy Wonka isn’t just one scene of course. There are countless classic musical numbers, some really inventive set pieces, and one of the great charismatic lead performances – Gene Wilder’s rendition is so beloved that it has almost developed a myth of its own over the past fifty-plus years. But the above scene does encapsulate all that Willy Wonka meant to cinema at the time of its release, and all it continues to mean now. We live in an era in which cinema almost endlessly seems on the cusp of complete annihilation – the rise of piracy, the rise of streaming, pandemic closures, franchise fatigue, worker exploitation, the threat of Artificial Intelligence to all creative industries – and Willy Wonka only ever becomes stronger in the face of such adversity. Its message of cinema being a beacon of creative light in a dark time, of people from any walk of life being able to share in the joy of the theatrical experience together, is pure and bold by the standards of today when every idea of cinema is being deconstructed, re-evaluated, or simply undermined, as big businesses pursue profits and consumers are forced to accept less and less. 

And more than that, it’s a movie that everyone from the smallest of children to the oldest of adults can enjoy. Whether you’re four years old discovering the magic of the movies for the first time, in your thirties reminiscing on a lifetime of great cinema for a list to be published on an online publication, or on your deathbed struggling for breath, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory can fill your heart with joy and bring a smile to your face. The colour, the music, the eccentricities of its lead star, and the simplicity of Charlie Bucket, it’s all there. 

If any choice on this list is a personal one more than it is a definitive Best Film of All Time, it’s this entry. There is no doubt that its effect on me is more grand than its overall effect on the film industry. As a musical, it probably doesn’t live up to the magnificence of the other screen musical on this list, nor the ones on the lists of other team members (notably The Sound of Music), and while its use of colour is extraordinary it cannot be compared to the utterly magnificent use of colour in French musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The direction is utterly flawless, but it isn’t as expressive as films by many filmmakers whom I’ve failed to include on this list. In fact, Willy Wonka isn’t “the best” at any one element, and that’s okay. For fifty years it has found relevance, it has brought joy – it is one of the most famous movies in the world; everyone knows about it even if they haven’t seen it. To touch so many people, and light up the imaginations of countless children, is truly a remarkable achievement. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is that kind of movie: an important reminder of the greatness of the form, told with all the accessibility that so many classics simply cannot deliver.

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  • <cite class="fn">Jacob</cite>

    I was shocked Malick didn’t make number one!

  • <cite class="fn">Margaret Roarty</cite>

    I hate to admit that I went through a phase where I didn’t like #10 at all for some ridiculous reason. I have since, thankfully, grown out of that and was super happy to see it appear on your list. Also, #1 wasn’t on my radar AT ALL, but I’m very intrigued now.

  • <cite class="fn">Holly</cite>

    It is a joy to read this, the whole list plays out beautifully and it is just so special to have these insights into your life through films. I particularly enjoyed reading about Singin in the Rain :)

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